The “Evangelical” Label

Reading over Al Mohler’s latest article regarding the identity crisis facing modern Evangelicalism, I must once again advocate ditching the label “Evangelical” as a proper noun to describe biblical, confessional Christianity.  My readers know that when I use the term “Evangelical” in its usage as a proper noun, I use capitalization in order to distinguish it from evangelicalism (lower-case “e”) which is rightly seen as something else altogether.  And while I can appreciate attempts to salvage the term “Evangelical” as a denominational label of sorts, I must reject it wholeheartedly.

As I’ve said before, there’s a profound difference between being “Evangelical” as a demographic group in modern society and being evangelical as an essential part of the Christian life.  All Christians are evangelical in the sense that they want to fulfill the mandate to spread the Gospel to their neighbors and indeed to all nations.  When the term was converted into a label for a whole group of people, it was designed to distinguish biblical Christianity from both liberalism as well as Roman Catholicism.  It was no longer enough simply to call yourself a Protestant.  As liberalism spread into the mainline denominations, those confessional Protestants (i.e., those who actually adhere to their confessions of faith) adopted the evangelical label.

Today’s “Evangelical” movement has completely abandoned the biblical, confessional theology of its founders.  Creeds and confessions have been watered down, if not abandoned altogether.  It’s not “cool” to have a denominational label anymore (unless you’re part of the non-denominational denomination).  According to today’s prevailing post-modernism, labels must be thrown out.  What passes for Christianity is a huge spectrum: modern Evangelicals open the big tent to everyone from Joel Osteen to the Roman Catholic Church.

This “mere Christianity” attitude has become the norm, where the definition of orthodoxy is reduced to its lowest common denominator.  There’s no substance or any real theological constitution whatsoever.  The diving line, if it exists at all, is thinner and thinner.  I’m not at all  surprised by some of my former Evangelical friends who defected over to Rome.  It’s noteworthy that the appeal of Roman Catholicism and the Eastern Church have won over many people who used to stand in the quasi-concert setting of your typical Evangelical church, singing repetitious “praise songs” devoid of any theological substance.

And while I didn’t become an apostate, I used to be in the same place as those folks.  I “grew up” within Evangelical circles.  I know the lingo and the trendiness…the superficial nonsense and the market-based techniques of the “church growth” movement.  It was a joke then and it’s only gotten worse.  Mohler and others might want to revive the “Evangelical” label, but I definitely will not join that effort.  I probably sound harsh in some of what I’ve said, but it there are times when being blunt is necessary.  People like Mohler who have a sound, biblical theology ought to run as far away as possible from the “Evangelical” label.

Contrary to the post-modern crowd, words do matter and have meaning.  When I hear the term “Evangelical” in its modern usage, thoughts of biblical orthodoxy don’t come to mind.  I suspect that’s the case with plenty of others out there.  Think about how difficult it must be to witness to people in their 20s who have grown up thinking that Evangelicals are simply an extension of the Republican Party–and the kooky, Pat Robertson side of the GOP at that.  People today know Christians more for what we are against (mostly in a political way) rather than what we are for–our confessions of faith.

As such, I no longer consider myself an Evangelical.  When people inquire about my Christian theology, I simply tell them that I’m an adherent of the Reformed faith and leave it at that.  This usually produces confused looks.  And then imagine how confused they look when I tell them I’m a Reformed Baptist!  It usually takes some time to unpack all of that for some people, but it’s worth it precisely because it produces a worthwhile, substantive discussion of theology.  Fellow believers are watching us and we have a duty to be gracious to them, patiently guiding them in the direction of a more biblical faith.

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